Three Years Later, American Airlines Is Still Getting the Runaround in China

Last Updated May 12, 2010 3:00 AM EDT

When American Airlines won one of the coveted rights to fly to China way back in 2007, the airline was thrilled. So why is it now singing a different tune? Even though China is allowing the airline to fly there, they aren't making it easy thanks to some anti-competitive slot times. It's these kind of protectionist moves that need to disappear in this industry.

Back in September 2007, American announced it had been chosen to fly between Beijing and Chicago. As you can imagine, the airline was thrilled. As it said in its release:

We said in our application that American's Chicago gateway will provide increased network competition and customer choice in the growing China market. DOT and Secretary Peters obviously agreed with that assessment, and we sincerely appreciate that.
A year later, with the world's economy in freefall, American decided that it wasn't so thrilled. It applied to have its required start date deferred from April 2009 to April 2010. This was granted.

By November 2009, things had improved and American had set the schedule to begin on April 26, 2010, just in time for China's International Labor Day. The times had been tentatively set with a midday departure from Chicago and a return arriving at the mid-afternoon, perfect for connecting plans.

Flash forward to April and things got ugly. The airline announced it wasn't able to start flights to Beijing on April 26 because "Simply put, American has not received commercially-viable landing and take-off slots for Beijing Capital International Airport from Chinese aviation authorities." How bad were they? My understanding is that they were for the middle of the night. China was playing games.

Initially, the service was postponed to May 4, but it was then postponed to May 25 because the airline still could not acquire any slots during a reasonable time period.

Now, American has finally been able to get its hands on some halfway decent slots, but they still aren't great and they vary by day. Starting May 25, they'll only be able to operate four days a week but the hope is to go daily on July 3. Here's the initial schedule:

Lv Chicago 830p Arr Beijing 11p (Friday/Sunday) Lv Chicago 930p Arr Beijing 1159p (Tuesday/Thursday)

Lv Beijing 759a Arr Chicago 749a (Thursday/Saturday/Sunday) Lv Beijing 659a Arr Chicago 649a (Tuesday)

As you can see, this mess of a schedule is just barely commercially viable. The times in China are terrible with a midnight arrival and a very early morning departure. American was clear this fight isn't over.
Beijing Capital International Airport is a slot constrained airport and we recognize the challenges the Chinese aviation authorities face in determining slot assignments. We will continue to work with them to secure more appropriate arrival and departure times in the future
Translation: The Chinese are screwing us and we'll keep fighting until we get what's fair.

This sort of protectionism has no place in aviation today. Competition is good, if only China would realize that.

Photo via Flickr user speccycol